Fraser River pink salmon run a poor haul for U.S. fishermen

The fishery for Fraser River pink salmon has ended for local U.S. fishermen — one marked by low catches here but another record run in parts of Alaska that helped push down prices.

“We’re stuck with low price and low production. It is a horrible combination,” said Pete Granger, a reefnetter who fishes in Legoe Bay for Lummi Island Wild.

Fraser River pink runs occur in odd years, and commercial fishermen who went out this year thought they would have a good season, given the Pacific Salmon Commission preseason forecast of 14.4 million. That estimate was based on the abundance of fry that went into the ocean two years ago.

Then during the season, the commission downgraded the run size to 6.2 million pinks.

But the number of pinks caught in U.S. waters by commercial fishermen was only about 640,100, according to Sept. 11 data from the Pacific Salmon Commission. (About 4.2 million pinks are believed to have migrated into the Fraser River.)

The season for U.S. waters closed Sept. 1.

In Canada, the number of pinks caught was 17,200, with all but 100 going to First Nations fishermen because Canada held off on fishing in marine waters to allow more salmon to get to the Fraser River, in part for native fisheries.

Granger called those totals “miniscule,” given that catches were expected in the millions in the U.S. and Canada.

No one knows why so fewer pinks returned from the ocean as adults to spawn in the Fraser River.

“Something happened in the open ocean that we really don’t have a good handle on,” Granger said. “We just scratch our heads.”

Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission, echoed those views.

“We’ll probably never know for sure,” Lapointe said, adding that will be the case unless data is collected while the pinks are in the ocean. “Clearly, it’s a fry-to-adult survival issue.”

It wasn’t just the local fleet that stayed for the Fraser River pinks that were affected.

The pink haul was booming in parts of Alaska, including more than 97 million in Prince William Sound — adding to a glut that, combined with a strong U.S. dollar, dropped prices paid to fishermen.

But much of the Puget Sound fleet was in a separate pink fishery in southeast Alaska that fell far short of forecasts, and those who peeled off to fish down here were then disappointed.

Seafood processors and their workers also felt the reverberation of the poor pink season.

Bellingham-based Bornstein Seafoods spent money to gear up.

“The worse thing is we were going to add another 50 to 80 jobs for a 2 1/2- to 3-month period that we’re not (adding),” said Colin Bornstein, company president.

Fewer fish means fewer dollars circulating through a community’s economy, he added.

It’s been a couple of tough fishing seasons for the local Bellingham commercial fleet. The weak pink run followed an abysmal haul of Fraser River sockeye salmon for them in 2014.

That was blamed on a blob of warmer water that was parked off the coast of Vancouver Island last spring and summer. That area of water was about 3 degrees Celsius warmer than normal and pushed most of the sockeye salmon Fraser River run around the north end of Vancouver Island through the Johnstone Strait into Canadian waters. That allowed Canadians to pull in 94 percent of the overall catch, while many local fishers gave up because so few fish entered U.S. waters.

Salmon have narrower temperature preferences than warmer-water species.

Meanwhile, the local fleet is looking toward a fall chum salmon run for South Sound and Hood Canal that is forecasted to be average at best.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.